Braille Monitor                                                 January 2012

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Staying Alive

by Barbara Loos

Brad and Barbara LoosFrom the Editor: I have been a reader of this magazine since 1972, and, while I have always found much to appreciate in its pages, I do confess that I have enjoyed some authors more than others. I loved the articles from Dr. Jernigan's mail basket. Before I had enough money to attend the national convention, I lived for the day when my magazine would come and I could hear the banquet speech, the national report, and the fantastic policy statements conveyed through our resolutions.

Of course, there were others besides Dr. Jernigan whose articles I hoped to see in the Braille Monitor. Barbara Loos was one. When the Monitor came on an LP record and later on a non-indexed cassette, skipping to a specific article was more difficult than it is today, but knowing that Barbara had a contribution would cause me to read my Monitor out of order, and hers would be the first article I read. I find the same excitement in editing what she writes as I did when listening to her on an eight-RPM record. Here is what she said to an audience at last fall’s NFB of Nebraska convention about seniors, innovators, and the National Federation of the Blind.

When I was asked to address you today on the topic of staying alive as blind senior citizens, a recent conversation with my teenage stepdaughter came to mind. Curious to gain understanding of why she was favoring one specific interested young man over another to date, I sought her perspective on those two gentlemen. One was her current boyfriend, and the other she referred to as her “best friend.” I asked her if she had to choose one or the other to be with on a deserted island, which would it be? She immediately chose Best Friend. When I asked her why, she said, “Because Boyfriend would think `This is a bummer’ and go to sleep; but Best Friend would build a boat.”
“Wow!” I said, thinking that we were on a roll. “That’s great reasoning. So why are you dating Boyfriend instead of Best Friend?”

Both that question and her answer are probably as old as dirt, and, since many of us here are not only senior citizens but also parents, we could probably recite it in unison. In case you haven’t heard it lately, it goes like this: “I don’t know.”

I believe that the way a teenager like my stepdaughter figures out the answers to questions such as whether to choose the deadbeat or the doer helps to determine how alive she or he will be throughout life. And I believe that about blind people as well. To put it bluntly, albeit ungrammatically, who we associate with matters.

In a recent broadcast of Something You Should Know, entitled “The Process of Innovation,” Mike Carruthers interviewed Hal Gregersen, coauthor of the book The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators. Interestingly, the very first skill gleaned from their discussions with some five-thousand individuals who have spawned innovative ideas that have caught on is that of questioning. According to Gregersen “They question in ways that provoke the status quo.”

We in the National Federation of the Blind certainly identify with this concept. The necessity of finding alternatives for doing things ordinarily done using sight compels us to question incessantly, refusing to accept a status quo that often threatens to suck the very life out of us with its restrictions and low expectations.

Until not long ago almost all of us, blind and sighted alike, accepted it as fact that one thing blindness counted out was the ability to drive. But the National Federation of the Blind didn’t leave it at that. Not only have we been willing to question this assumed reality, but we have also sought disruptive innovators who can help us to explore possible options. While I, unfortunately, was not present in Daytona Beach on January 29 of last year, I did attend the Blind Driver Challenge® through Internet streaming as Mark Riccobono, executive director of our Jernigan Institute in Baltimore, drove a Ford Escape equipped with sensors which, upon detecting obstacles, activated both vibrator strips in the seat cover and small motors in the finger holes of gloves he wore, allowing him to receive feedback ordinarily gained visually and used to make the split-second decisions necessary when driving. I took advantage of the opportunities at both our 2010 and 2011 national conventions to experience the simulator and interact with those currently conducting the evolution of this exciting project. While it may be some time before we’re out there driving, the questions we raise along the way will make the world a better, more alive place for everyone.

The next skill disruptive innovators possess is observing. The way Gregersen puts it is, “They observe like anthropologists; they watch the world very carefully.” We as blind people have benefited from innovators like that. Louis Braille comes to mind. Observing how slow and cumbersome both reading and writing were using tactile print letters, he constantly searched for options. When Captain Barbier brought his configurations of dots used by soldiers to communicate in the dark to show those at the school for the blind, Louis Braille, a student at the time, studied every facet of the system, considering its potential for use by the blind. Ultimately he rejected Barbier’s code in which dot patterns represented sounds, creating instead a system with fewer dots formed into letters, punctuation, numbers, and other symbols. This allows us not only to read, write, and spell but also to perform mathematical computations, scientific calculations, and musical notation, just as the sighted do using print.

The third of Gregersen’s five skills is networking. Innovators “network for ideas”; they talk to people who are really different from them. This, friends, is why we’re here today. We’re picking one another’s brains, seeking more efficient ways for blind people to do everything from pouring a glass of water without spilling it to using various apps with VoiceOver on an iPhone. And we’ve invited others, some of whom think very differently from the way we do, to help us change what it means to be blind in our society.

Within our organization we have found it useful to create specialized networks at various levels. The Fast Facts page of our national website, <www.nfb.org>, leads one to a list of thirty divisions, twenty-eight committees, and eight groups through which the National Federation of the Blind carries on its business. These various bodies provide support, information, and resources regarding a wide range of professions, recreational activities, special interests, legislative issues, fundraising projects, and other areas related to blindness. Many of our state affiliates, including this one, have also used this mechanism for focused efforts.

Human nature is such that, although all of us care about both blind students’ access to equipment in a chemistry lab and blind seniors’ access to information available in retirement centers, when it comes to addressing specifics, while blind students themselves will be most motivated to work on the equipment concern, blind seniors are most likely to see the information-access issue through to a solution. I urge you to seek your place in there somewhere and start making a difference.

My commitment to do that began when I joined this organization in January of 1975 and became its Lincoln chapter president a month later. I’ve served as both state president and treasurer of this affiliate and have been on committees dealing with everything from Braille literacy issues to policy-making through resolutions. I participated in our efforts both to create a center for the blind and later to remove our state agency from the Department of Public Institutions, making it a free-standing commission answerable directly to the governor, ultimately serving as director of the Center over thirty years ago and as our first designee on the commission board from 2000 until 2007. I have also mentored youth, both formally and informally, and have taught blind students, mostly senior citizens, how to use adaptive equipment through our Computer Options project.

I’m also keenly interested in those beyond our organization who network with us to improve blind people’s lives. Recently I read a book entitled See What I’m Saying: The Extraordinary Power of Our Five Senses, by Lawrence D. Rosenblum, a professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside, who received a grant from our organization for his research on the audibility of hybrid cars. This book offers a mind-boggling exploration of how hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and seeing intertwine. The book jacket says, “It turns out that our brains use entire forms of perceptual information of which we are largely unaware. We can hear things that don’t make sounds, feel things without touching them, see things with no form, and smell things that have no discernible odor. Throughout the book Rosenblum not only illuminates the fascinating science behind our hidden perceptual powers, but also demonstrates how increased awareness of these abilities can actually lead us to enhance the way we use them.”

Which brings me to Gregersen’s fourth skill of disruptive innovators, that of experimenting. He puts it this way: “They’re experimental in their approach to life, love to turn out things, try on things, test things.” That, in large part, is how we’ve developed alternative techniques for doing things generally done using sight.

For a number of years I have enjoyed making tactile shapes using Braille. I have often networked with others in this endeavor. Within the past year I have been introduced to an artist, Kathy Weber, who is interested in tactile expression. After showing one another some of our work, we decided it would be fun to collaborate on something. Since I have been trying to make a credible five-point star using Braille for years, I suggested that as a possibility. To my delight, she took up the challenge. Since she lives in Fremont and I live in Lincoln, most of our communication during this time was through email. We wrote instructions to each other, tried them using our own Braille equipment, and sent comments and suggestions back and forth.

While both the symmetry and boundaries of rectangular Braille cells are great for reading and writing, they pose interesting dilemmas for art involving angles and curves. By mid-summer, though, we had created two stars we considered credible. The most exciting thing, however, was the way we had stretched one another’s thinking. I agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes’s observation, “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

And this leads to the fifth and final skill of disruptive innovators, about which Gregersen says, “… at the end of the day they think differently, which is association thinking, lateral thinking; they connect the unconnected to create something surprising.” I think this is where many of us get stuck. Although we may often repeat Albert Einstein’s assertion, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” we do just that every day and wonder why we keep spinning our wheels.

Louis Braille, Mark Riccobono, Lawrence Rosenblum, and Kathy Weber don’t fit this mold. After questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting, their conclusions push the envelope of innovation. In his diary Louis Braille asked, “Why should we confine ourselves to the things used by the seeing, when their way was developed for the eye! Why should the blind man, without eyes, think he can use the implements of the seeing?” And he answered, “The solution then rests with a device that has nothing to do with the eyes.” By unconnecting the erroneously connected, he employed both genius and persistence in creating the system which continues to make literacy possible for blind people throughout the world today.

Mark Riccobono’s perspective, as stated in his “Message from the Executive Director” in the August 2011 issue of the NFB Jernigan Institute’s Imagineering Our Future, is, “Whether the subject is eliminating subminimum wages or raising expectations for the education of blind children, there are often disruptions in our progress meant to change our direction. Our organization is built on a strong foundation, and our team is prepared for uncertainty. The members of the Federation are not afraid to tackle big issues, even if they seem so much bigger than we can handle, because we know the power that comes from our individual efforts collectively focused.” And our brand of collective focus often surprises people, as it did when we connected the unconnected, a blind person and a steering wheel, at Daytona International Speedway last January.

In the last chapter of his book Professor Rosenblum says, “As you learned, you can hear shapes and touch speech. You can taste odors and smell fear. You can see speech and hear space. You can touch flavor and smell symmetry. And you can taste scenes and hear faces.” It’s one of those Wow! Really? kinds of books, and I definitely recommend it as a connect-the-seemingly-unconnected experience.

With respect to Kathy Weber, on one face-to-face occasion she brought a full page of Braille cells and some flat wooden stars she had picked up so we could experiment with pressing those onto the page, thus identifying the dots that would form an outline for creating a star. Although I didn’t find this method workable (I could neither accurately isolate the dots covered by the star nor press down hard enough on it to alter the height of the smashed dots significantly), it may be that I just wasn’t disruptive enough as an innovator to figure out how to connect that specific unconnected. What it did do for me, though, was to open my mind to other possible avenues for creating Braille art besides the trial-and-error approach with direct input using slate and stylus, Brailler, or notetaker that I have employed up to this point.

On October 5, just a few short days ago, America lost a truly influential disruptive innovator to pancreatic cancer, Steve Jobs, co-founder and former chairman and chief executive officer of Apple, Inc. People all around the world have been focusing on the life and legacy of one who, as our national President Marc Maurer put it in a press release, “demonstrated tremendous vision in leadership in many ways, one of which is the incorporation of access for the blind and others with disabilities into the design of Apple’s groundbreaking product line. Apple’s monumental access achievements include the ability for blind users, for the first time, to use touch-screen technology, as well as the inclusion of built-in support for Braille-aware devices.”

I’d like to share with you a quote attributed to Steve Jobs which I think pretty well sums up the prescription for staying alive I’m hoping to convey here today. “Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes... the ones who see things differently--they're not fond of rules... You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change things.... They push the human race forward, and, while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.”

I challenge you to be one of those “crazy ones.” Go out and question, observe, network, experiment, and disrupt the status quo with your innovative thinking. In short, be a doer not a deadbeat. Stay alive and change the world!

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